Letting his hair down in a recent interview, screenwriter Dan O'Bannon testified that he conceived the monster in "Alien" in vengeful frustration at the critical and popular failure of his maiden effort, "Dark Star," released in 1975. "I wanted to get even," O'Bannon said. "And, by God, it worked."
The enterprising local film society, Magic Lantern Cinema, plucked "Dark Star" from obscurity to open its "American Maverick" series last fall. O'Bannon's "lost" film, made in collaboration with John Carpenter, who also attained success a year ago as the director of "Halloween," has now opened a regular commercial engagement at The Key in Georgetown.
"Dark Star" may have more to recommend it now that O'Bannon has made a mark of sorts with "Alien," which shares key story devices first introduced in "Dark Star" -- a low-budget attempt at absurdist satire in a science-fiction setting.
For example, for anyone who has seen "Alien," the camp humor surrounding the role O'Bannon himself plays in "Dark Star" -- a reluctant, flunky astronaut -- is considerably enhanced. Ordered to "feed the alien," the runty, scraggly O'Bannaon grumbles "Aww, I have to do everything" and trudges off to confront an inflated plastic beach ball with webbed feet. This facetiously nasty, home-made monster is a brat who subjects O'Bannon to a prolonged (is it ever!) sequence of prankish torment.
"Dark Star" also deployed an on-board thermonuclear device as a climactic death threat and implied that the crew members have been somehow abandoned and betrayed by mission controllers. The mission itself is weirdly disreputable: The crew members of the Dark Star, a kind of armed sanitation vessel, are supposedly cruising the galaxy in order to zap "unstable planets" with their arsenal of atomic weapons.
When the film begins the mission has been in progress for about 20 years and the skipper has died accidentally. He turns up later, also in the person of O'Bannon, in a cryogenic freezer and carries on a dim conversation with his desperate successor, anticipating the colloquy with Ian Holm's severed head in "Alien." The crew shows various signs of instability.
The psychological disintegration of the astronauts as a result of outer space cabin fever is paralleled, with unfortunate and presumably unintentional irony, by the breakdown of the movie from a lack of sustained comedy style and resourcefulness.
Carpenter's lugubrious direction of "Halloween" was also anticipated in "Dark Star." His poor timing and draggy tempo accentuate amateurish performances and heavily facetious situations. The premise has possibilities, although one doubts if it was ever meant to be sustained at feature-length. Along with his evil-minded morbidity, there are streaks of genuinely droll humor and suspenseful calculation in O'Bannon. The problem is that "Dark Star" probably read as witty as it plays. I doubt that a single lever idea in the material was ever enhanced in the process of being acted out.
Could O'Bannon really have envisioned mass audience success for "Dark Star"? At best the film might have aspired to cult status as an offbeat, amusing first feature, compensating for its shoestring budget with irresistable comic ingenuity. Even if it had been done brilliantly, with a cast of high-caliber young comedians the prospects for financial success and critical recognition would have remained relatively modest.
O'Bannon was perhaps unlucky in his choice of directing collaborators. If he'd met John Landis of "Animal House" fame, who was debating with "Shlock" at about the same time, "Dark Star" might have been a pip. Of course, O'Bannon got luckier than he probably deserved when Ridley Scott was hired for "Alien."
O'Bannon has only himself to blame for hogging the largest role in "Dark Star" and lacking the comedy technique to keep it interesting. Maybe this is the real source of O'Bannon's wounded vanity. While "Dark Star" could always have established him as a promising screenwriter, it was bound to finish him as a New Face.